Inside the Mind of a Psychopath


Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpiece Psycho left audiences quivering in fear and anxiety as they viewed the crimes from the perspective of a victim, but what was atmosphere within the mind of the psychopath himself?

Merging together to shed light upon this question, the fields of genetics, sociology, and neuroscience have recently witnessed immense strides in understanding why the mind of a psychopathic serial killer operates in the way it does.

Reactions, motives, and emotions have been quantified through several data sets collected by criminology researchers, many providing evidence that both the environment and hereditary inheritance can play a critical role in the development of anti-social behavior exhibited by psychopaths.

Psychopaths are often perceived as maniacal, emotionally driven individuals prone to committing crimes of passion. Yet, it is quite the opposite that is actually true – psychopaths generally lack a capacity for emotion and empathy, taking on cold, calculating, and manipulating personalities [1].

Characteristic sociopathic traits, such as superficial charm, habits of dishonesty, and aggression have been identified across a broad spectrum of cultures, from New Zealand communities to isolated Inuits living near the Bering Strait [2]. But what is more surprising is the genetic and biological similarities these sociopathic individuals demonstrate.

Psychologist and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Adrian Raine embarked upon a journey to identify correlations between physiology and violent tendencies by scanning the brains of an array of psychopaths, including serial killers. Through his work, he hypothesizes that many sociopathic characteristics are genetically inherited – in other words, certain individuals may be predisposed to violence simply because of their genetic makeup [3].

For instance, the common observation that most serial killers are male (94.9% in 2010) is attributed to several factors, such as higher testosterone levels leading to higher levels of aggression [4]. In addition, the fact that females contain approximately 18% more nerve cells in their frontal lobes, the area of the brain responsible for self-control, planning, and judgment, can be aligned with the meticulous planning that generally accompanies female serial killers’ actions [5].

As Raine analyzed his collection of brain scans, he discovered that while one-time murderers exhibited poor frontal cortex performance, psychopathic serial killers demonstrated excellent frontal lobe functioning [6]. Instead, he detected abnormalities in a deeper part of the brain – the amygdala. The discovery that psychopaths tend to have an 18% smaller amygdala, the part of the brain crucial for sentiments such as fear and morality bolsters the idea that psychopathy could be partially rooted in genetics [7].

There are more subtle biological as well. For instance, low resting heart rates are prevalent amongst individuals who demonstrate anti-social behavior [8], and evidence has risen that diets lacking omega-3 fatty acids can lead to an increase in violence [9].

Delving deeper still, certain researchers have identified particular genes coding enzymes linked to aggression. A study conducted by Professor David H. Kaye of Penn State across generations in a Dutch family investigated the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene located on the X chromosome [10]. Several males in the family had committed various violent crimes, while other males had no such records. Scientists discovered through genetic analysis that the aggressive males actually demonstrated no MAOA enzyme activity at all, consequently suggesting that the gene may have coded for enzymes potentially diminishing the propensity for violent behavior [11].

Subsequent studies surrounding the MAOA gene set to understand why certain socially maltreated children develop anti-social behavior, whereas others do not. Researchers found that children with high levels of MAOA expression were less likely to demonstrate aggression, indicative that genotype can dictate an individual’s reaction to environmental stimuli [12].

Uncovering the “anatomy of violence” has revolutionized neurocriminology, and the questions raised by further developments far transcend disciplinary bounds, evoking ethical concerns applicable to court systems [13]. As a result, a few defense attorneys have begun emphasizing the physiological correlations between brain formation patterns and violent behaviors.

For example, robber, rapist, and murderer Donta Page evaded the death penalty in America on account of biological and environmental factors. His exposure to lead, head injuries, traumatic childhood experiences, and poor cognitive capabilities voided him from taking full accountability for his violent actions [14]. Thus, when he was sentenced, it was more of an effort to keep danger off the streets rather than to actively punish Page.

Much of today’s neurocriminology research revolves around preventing future crime, predicting which individuals are most likely to repeat offenses, and rehabilitation.

Preventative research primarily aims to diminish the potential for the development of anti-social behavior. It focuses on ensuring proper nutrition and protection from toxicants through early development, urging pregnant women to veer away from drinking and smoking. Omega-3 supplements, implemented into the diets of young offenders, were found to reduce future crime by about 35% according to Raine [15]. Still, the question remains if whether controlling environmental elements is enough to mitigate the effects of genetically coded predispositions for violence.

Risk assessment investigates this question through biology. A recent study showed that individuals with low activity in the anterior cingular cortex, a region associated with behavior regulation, were twice as likely to repeat offenses [16]. Further evidence shows that men with smaller amygdala are three times more likely to commit violence [17]. Such measurements of criminal inclination hope to stop crime before it even starts.

Rehabilitation has surfaced in many different forms, including medication, environmental enrichment, and dietary supplements. Arguments questioning the potency of trying to deter psychopaths have arisen, considering that by definition, sociopathic individuals lack the proper capacities for emotion and fear for guilt to have a significant impact on behavior [18].

Although Raine believes that “mitigating factors [should be taken] far more into account in the penalty phase of a trial than what [court systems] are doing at the moment,” he also recognizes the ferocity with which these crimes were committed demand compensation for the victims [19]. The prevalence of individuals predisposed to several genetically anti-social factors that do not demonstrate psychopathic behavior makes it clear that genetics and biological traits cannot solely be held responsible for violence [20].

Consequently, as courts begin implementing leniency within sentences to account for these biological links, it is critical to consider the danger that accompanies sentences that are too mild [21]. Especially because serial killers are, by definition, repeat offenders, linking patterns of aggression to gene expression and genetically inherited brain structures should serve to explain violent crimes, rather than excuse them.


[1] Scott O. Lilienfield and Hal Arkowitz, “What ‘Psychopath’ Means,” Scientific American Mind, December/January 2007/2008, [Page #], accessed November 28, 2013, doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind1207-80.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Adrian Raine, “The Criminal Mind,” Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2013, [Page #], accessed November 30, 2013,

[4] Mike Aamodt, “Serial Killer Statistics” (unpublished raw data, Radford University, Radford, VA, October 19, 2013), [Page 4], PDF.

[5] Joni E. Johnston, “Female Serial Killers,” Psychology Today, May 29, 2012,[Page #].

[6] Raine, “The Criminal Mind.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Adrian Raine, “Features of Borderline Personality and Violence,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 49, no. 2 (March 1993):[Page 277], accessed November 30, 2013,

[9] Paul Bloom, “Natural Born Killers,” The New York Times (New York), June 23, 2013.

[10] D. H. Kaye, “Behavioral Genetics Research and Criminal DNA Databases,”Law and Contemporary Problems 69, no. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 2006): [Page 289].

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Raine, “Features of Borderline Personality,” [Page 277].

[14] Raine, “The Criminal Mind.”

[15] Adrian Raine, “Criminologist Believes Violent Behavior Is Biological,” interview by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, National Public Radio, May 1, 2013 (originally aired May 1, 2013), hosted by Terry Gross, accessed November 30, 2013,

[16] Raine, “The Criminal Mind.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Stephanos Bibas, “Integrating Remorse and Apology into Criminal Procedure,” The Yale Law Journal 114, no. 1 (October 2004): [Page 85].

[19] Raine, “Criminologist Believes Violent Behavior,” interview, Fresh Air.

[20] Kaye, “Behavioral Genetics Research and Criminal,” [Page 288].

[21] Paul Bloom, “Natural Born Killers,” The New York Times (New York), June 23, 2013.

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Retrieved September 5, 2014 from: Creative Commons

Tiara Bhatacharya is a junior at The Harker School. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook